Brookline artist brings full range of works to arts festival

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When Vince Ornato was in second grade at Our Lady of Lorreto School in Brookline, a nun asked if anyone wanted to draw a farmer on the blackboard as she told a Bible story about planting.

Mr. Ornato volunteered, drawing not only a farmer but also a farm, fields, animals, clouds and more across one-third of the blackboard.

"The whole class was looking at me and I didn't know why," he recalled. "I was 35-years old before it dawned on me they were expecting a stick figure."

Today, the North Side man, 55, is an artist who has made a living for decades doing caricatures, portraits, ink drawings, oil paintings and industrial work, with a focus on the industrial history of Pittsburgh.

"With my artwork, I pay tribute to its workers and their families," said Mr. Ornato, who comes from a family of iron workers.

From noon to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Mr. Ornato will display about 50 of his prints and 20 originals at the free Three Rivers Arts Festival Downtown. He will be located at Booth 103 on the Penn Avenue Extension of the Artist Market.

From 6 to 10 p.m. on June 19, he will draw complimentary caricatures at a private networking reception of the Pittsburgh Social Exchange at Angel's Arms, 1 Pius St., South Side. The event will support Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Pittsburgh.

After Mr. Ornato's second grade debut, his teachers encouraged his artistry.

"By sixth grade, I could draw better than anyone in class," he said.

It was not until he graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in English writing that he decided to pursue his childhood dream.

Supporting himself by working in construction and in steel mills, he enrolled in the Art Institute of Pittsburgh's evening school.

After graduation, he answered an advertisement to draw quick portraits -- in five minutes -- at Kennywood Park, which led to a gig there.

He continued to practice and enrolled in a drawing class at Carnegie Mellon University, still working in the mills.

"I remember the noise and the weight of materials on my shoulder," he said.

Over the years, he frequently ventured outside his home studio to create thousands of pictures on site, such as in local industrial/historic areas, during trips to Italy and at private parties.

While doing caricatures in a Danbury, Conn., mall in the early 1990s, he was approached by an ESPN-TV producer to do on-air caricatures of anchors Keith Olberman, Stuart Scott and others.

At about the same time, he set the record for the most two-minute caricatures at the Three Rivers Arts Festival in one day: 222.

"I grabbed a hot dog and ran right back to drawing," he recalled.

Today, Mr. Ornato exhibits at the area's major art festivals, sells work out of his studio, over the Internet and has even staged a one-person show at the Art Institute.

In a career spanning over 30 years, his goal is the same as when it began: to keep on getting better.

"Friends talk about retiring and I just don't relate; I want to die while I'm painting."

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Margaret Smykla, freelance writer:


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